Lecture to Wotton’s Society, Eton College, marking the 60th year
since its foundation by the speaker, Tom Stacey. March 8th 2007
A Sanctity to Ethnicity
Who we are and where we belong as a factor of soul
Listen to this. It is a quotation from Rowan Williams, our present Archbishop of Canterbury, a man of the Spirit and a man of words.
“Eliot wrote, in Little Gidding, that ‘A people without history/Is not redeemed from time’. This tantalizingly ambiguous phrase can be read as saying, ‘To lose one’s history is not the same as being liberated from the limitations of life in time’, or, more strongly, ‘To lose one’s history is to be condemned to an “unredeemed” condition, to absolute bondage to the temporal process.’ On either reading, to be ‘redeemed from time’, to be liberated from the sense of the present and the future as a trap and an enslavement, requires historical awareness.” (1)
You will find that on page 24 of Williams’ book of 1982, entitled Resurrection. My next quotation is from my own more recent work entitled Tribe, where at the end I am summing up my half century’s involvement with the people of Ruwenzori, the Mountains of the Moon, on the Uganda-Congo border. “You who have been with me so long will have grown familiar with what I claim to be a constant in man’s presence on his planet, namely the holiness of ethnicity. Race and place, I say, belong to one another not just inexorably but righteously: the proper sense of his ethnicity feeds Man the conviction of his identity and a glimpse of his grandeur. No substitute exists for that food. For a man to be deprived of it in the context of his grandeur is as for a man to be deprived of his childhood in the eye of his maturity. He is a man without root; without root he is without leaf.
“This ethnicity is a protean reality – an allegiance implied by every combination of blood and language, territory and history, culture and inheritance, cosmology and ethic: a reality on the change by the decade, the year, the month, the day, the hour. It will today be broad, tomorrow narrow. It will mutate, shift, merge, mix, be wilfully adopted, or consciously assumed, or parasitical upon another. It will misrepresent itself, misread itself, dishonour itself; it will inspire, uplift, and rally. It will be subject to exploitation and corruption; it will be conducive to glory and sacrifice. It will be a source of war and a source of peace.
“Whatever its outward face, it will always be subjective. No one person’s sense of what it means to be of this or that ethnic persuasion will be identical to any other’s. It will be forever collective yet for ever private. In that privacy and intimacy will reside its holiness.” (2)
What I seek to argue is that who-we-are and where-we-belong are a yoked constituent of being. We in Britain today seem to be engaged in much discussion and quite a bit of haranguing on “diversity” and “multi-culturalism” on the one hand and cohesion and nationhood on the other. All of it that I have ever heard fails to interpret men and women at the level at which these abstracts truly operate. That is, the “level” of the inner being where identity is formed. This failure misleads the well-intended into perceiving “ethnicity” in the first place as a problem, a fomenter of prejudice, a generator of hatred and conflict, even of war, and as belonging to a phase in human affairs which men of sophistication are to put behind them, perhaps in favour of a formula of a designer “hybridity” such as I have heard being promoted by a fellow former foreign correspondent and Old Etonian contemporary of mine, Neal Ascherson.
Well, there is a downside. I acknowledged as much in my self-quotation just now – a “source of peace and a source of war”. We echo the Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 3. It is a downside matched, you could say, by the downside of creation itself.
We are indeed dealing with the created order of things – with being, with a factor of soul, Man endowed with his potential Totality, which is to say holiness.
Let us interpret the word “ethnicity”, in its aspect of allegiance, as us-ness, i.e. everybody’s first person plural, for better or for worse: who-we-are and where-we-belong; or, more precisely, who we think we are and where we think we belong. This us-ness under discussion cannot but be subjective. Grasp the meaning of that word. It is the private, indeed individual, requirement of collective identity that sustains anyone’s being within whatever ring of circumference fits the situation of the moment. Such a “circumference” might circle an us-ness as narrow as the family, the old folks at home, or as broad as Man the biological species. What I am focused on here is that circumference of us-ness which constitutes ethnic allegiance and manifests itself in the social and political field everywhere with force and depth in human affairs. This is always a requirement. It is often a craving.
Now I am saying nothing amazingly new. Indeed, I often feel its lack of recognition is the fault of its obviousness. Long before Homer recited the line Let us flee to the beloved fatherland every hearer would have known the meaning of that utterance: every hearer has known it since. I am restating it in the context of today’s world and mindset, and the eternal soul-set. Thinkers far and wide have indeed reflected on the matter: and in it, of course, history is soaked. “Every great culture that comprehends nations,” the philosopher Martin Buber has remarked, “rests on an original relational incident, on a response to the Thou made at its source, on an act of being made by the spirit.” Do you hear that? “Every great culture that comprehends nations rests … on an act of being made by the spirit.” This is plain talk, about what is more often taken as read than commonly spoken of. “This act,” Buber goes on, “strengthened by the similarly directed power of succeeding generations, creates in the spirit a special conception of the cosmos; only through this act is cosmos, an apprehended world, a world that is homely and houselike, man’s dwelling in the world, made possible again and again. Only now can man confident in his soul …. shape the very community of men.” (3)
Buber is charting Man’s relationship with the divine, with the non-dimensional. This is the critical context of the “sanctity” in my title. The spirituality of Buber, born and bred a Jew, is informed by an agnatic allegiance and attendant religious culture, and of a territory promised by God – ideas familiar enough to all Bible-bred mankind. This is my chosen level.
In strictly secular thought we might listen to the psychologist Erik Erikson expatiating (in Identity, Youth and Crisis) on the Freudian perception of the double identity at work where the “core of the individual” mutually reflects the “core of the common culture” and a given people’s “deep commonality known only to those who share it” is expressible “in words more mythical than conceptual”. On this same theme the MIT-based scholar Harold Isaacs comments: “An individual belongs to his basic group in the deepest and most literal sense that here he is not alone, which is what all but a very few human beings most fear to be. He is not only not alone … he cannot be denied or rejected. … It is home in the sense of Robert Frost’s line, the place where, when you’ve got to go there, they’ve got to take you in.” (4) (I quote from Ethnicity: Theory and Experience.)
Eliot has however already taken us a little further. In his metaphysical exposition Little Gidding, last of his Four Quartets, he is telling of the soul’s requirement of “memory” in the oscillation between “attachment to self and to things and persons, detachment/From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them … the use of memory/for … liberation/From the future as well as the past.” That passage of the poem finishes: “So, while the light fails/On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel/History is now and England.” To this Rowan Williams adds a significant Christian gloss: liberation from time, and hence “resurrectional”.
The sense of liberation from the self as the isolated “I” and from the time-tagged “now” is at the heart of the absolute need of ethnicity such as I postulate. All of the voices I have quoted speak in parallel terms. As for my own experience, the Bakonzo of the Ruwenzori mountains, a people with whom I have had some intimacy over half a century, are contained by their shared embitha which is precisely that “deep commonality” of Freud’s perception: a privy ancestral patriotism reflecting a territorial sanctity if not, indeed, inviolability. But the ethnic experience is simultaneously one of containment and release; of self and self-diffusion: the polarities in interplay. That’s the liberation.
The escape from the fear not to say horror of being alone began, mythically speaking, in the Garden of Man’s pristine pre-consciousness when Adam heard God’s challenging Who told thee thou wast naked? (Genesis 3:11). From then on, Man must round out the terrifyingly isolated thou by his being gathered in by immediate kin upon whom not only was here-and-now survival mutually dependent but also perpetuation. In the same way he is sustained by (or amid) the recognisable groves and skylines of his territory and indeed the heavenly orbs of infinite creation and all that his community has experienced of their (sometimes talkative) Deity. In that “ethnicity”, rounded out in present, past and future, in race and place, fellowship and culture, Man as soul wins access to the immeasurable which the soul knows to be her right.
To go beyond any experience of being you must first enter it.
Being and soul
Let us chart this. The primal collective expands, orbiting its agnatic origin and soon widening into an illimitable ancestry and (by progeny) an undelvable future. Each orbit craves its circumference of instinctual if volatile recognisability of “us” in this form or that – fellows and folk, a people, lingo, grazing or plowing territory, homeland, numinous sanctuaries, patria, and so on. It is sustained by history, myth, ritual, regalia, bearing, cords of heredity, codes of speech, humour, odour and heaven knows what subliminal clues and invisible girdles. “As water wears away a stone,” in the imagery of Ortega y Gasset, “so the landscape models its men, custom by custom. Momentary bursts of genius … mark its profits.” It will include a measure of physiognomic familiarity.
This I perceive to be the soul’s requirement, no less insistently present in any urbanised, atomised, post-modern, illusorily globalised society than in the primal tribe or the land of Canaan, for the will-to-be: in religious language, for Life. From such requirement stems, indeed, the spiritual initiative exemplified by the world’s cosmogonies, patterns of worship, the revelatory claims, the dogmata and practices of prayer.
Also from it there springs the entire creative corpus and endeavour of a people. There is no art, I contend, no culture, however universal its appeal, no “momentary bursts of genius” that are not “ethnic” in the fluid, adoptive sense in which I deploy the word. Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” owes its authority to ascend to (pan-European) universality by token of the authenticity of its Lutheran German provenance. That confidence “of soul”, as referred to by Buber, is essential. To illustrate the point, I ask you to cast your mind’s ear to any composer whose work you respond to. What would Sibelius be to any of us if he were not Finnish, Dvorak if not Bohemian, Vaughan-Williams if not Celtic/English, Wagner if not Rhenish/German, Mussorgski if not Russian, Copland if not American? Likewise literature; likewise the plastic arts; likewise worship. “Salvation is from the Jews,” said Jesus (John 4:22), founder of the pan-ethnic Faith.
We are touching secret sources here, such as the politics of modern man is not prone to apprehend. Yet politics may exploit or uncage the secrecies with appalling consequences like the massacres and willed genocides of recent history; or it may induce unwarranted guilt as by attempts to indoctrinate against thought-crime concerning ethnic strangerhood. The inherent reductiveness and shallowness of the democratic premise befuddle modern man, whose tangle of communal fears, expectations, envies and grievances are mongered and met by competing party politics and resultant bribery, sops and palliatives: economic, social, educational, welfarist. Parties are voted in or out accordingly on a national matrix of government as if they held the key to the electorate’s being. That is an illusion; and amid it, on we hasten in doomed pursuit, as it were, of earthly answers to heavenly issues. The planes are not compatible and the profound and noble instinctual motives are on the instant perverted and lost to sight.
Yet the soul will out: such is the way of things. Against whatever reductive response to this or that inadequacy, anxiety, opaque dissatisfaction, accidie or manifest futility, the soul will be in search of whatever makes for that “whole” which alone inspires and liberates. So we make art, or respond to art’s wholing influence; we seek others to love, or seek God in the same intent; and we remain ever ready for the wholeness of the embrace of shared race-and-place, the (protean) us-ness and shared inheritance. “To love the little platoon we belong to in society,” wrote Edmund Burke (in Reflexions on the Revolution in France), “is the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.”
That is a finding I too have found. At work and at stake in such identity are, in the first place, wholeness and creativity: the perennial urge for self-release and realisation in benign diffusion. Personal confidence within that “deep commonality known only to those who share it” is the sine qua non of self-release, out-givingness, the opening of the heart to neighbourly identities and the wider circumferences of “us”. This is how people like to be. Baulked or bereft of that confidence for any one of a dozen reasons – confronted, say, as the late-arriving German nation found itself to be after the territorial humiliations imposed at Versailles in 1919, or as the Bakonzo of Ruwenzori were by ethnic marginalisation and linguistic occlusion under colonial rule – the genial and creative current of the soul swiftly turns bitter and dangerous: to resentment, suspicion, xenophobia, protective inwardness, rabid nationalism. To suppress such negative symptoms – and the trouble they lead to – by denying wounded ethnicity its collective instinct, inflames the wound. Neurotic response is as certain as if, say, to suppress rape, the attempt is made to outlaw the sexual urge.
Burke, by contrast, was indicating a natural progression towards broader inclusiveness from the surety of the core identity: local caste allegiance, he was suggesting, yielding naturally to the national. That is, if we borrow from the future, English allegiance subsumed – along with the Welsh, Scots, and hopefully Irish – by a British allegiance; and in our own day, conceivably, British being overlaid by a pan-European allegiance … I shall return to that. The observable evidence meanwhile is of loyalties overlapping and retracting with varying intensities in varying situations. They ebb and flow; they smoulder and flare. Often blood is the dominating factor, or blood plus language and territory; sometimes it is Faith, as between Christian and Muslim, or Protestant and Roman Catholic, or Sunni and Shia.
Strife and ethnic fear close communities upon themselves, harden boundaries. Where there’s ethnic security, however, the expandable circumference remains a valid perception. Thus also the grander release: ethnic allegiance reflecting a mankind-wide allegiance, the Hymn to Joy filling the breasts of the students of 1848 marching for linguist and political autonomy with heavenly, creational joy, liberation from time “as a trap”. Patriotism may not be enough, as our British Nurse Edith Cavell reminded whoever might be listening before she was executed by the Germans in 1915. What I am saying is that people need the patriotism to inform its own transcendence.
Ethnicity in the politics of men
Let us have a look at how all this has been and is being encountered and handled in the field of human affairs. Here’s a preliminary apercu. The experience of no single ethnicity mirrors another’s. The British homeland experience, for instance, contains an historical legacy of conquest and complex assimilation. Many a Welshman today will risk his life to fight for Britain yet shed an ethnic tear at the singing of Land of My Fathers when his native rugby team meets an English XV, and not only because his anthem is sweeter music than that of the English. For a hundred reasons the old cultural and linguistic stand-off has turned to mutual fertilisation. That said, no Government in Westminster can ignore the ethnic factor in the United Kingdom’s constituent territories. In one of them, Hibernian Celts and Scots-Irish have been covertly at war for four decades (or, arguably, twice that number of centuries). Right now, of course, ambitious politicians of the SNP and Plaid Cymru are busy mongering ethnic resentment out of any available grievance.
In the big world, challenged ethnicity – genetic, linguistic, religious-cum-cultural – is everywhere the violence is today, or has lately been: Shia, Sunni, and Kurd in Iraq (what a Pandora’s box Mr Bush and Mr Blair have opened!); in Aghanistan Pushtun (who comprise the Taleban), Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazzaras; Palestine, Chechnya, Darfur, Somalia, Congo, half-forgotten Tibet and Burma, and a great scatter of little places: South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabagh, Fiji … most dreadfully in recent history in Rwanda, and most disgracefully in the Yugoslavia Woodrow Wilson cobbled together after the First World War which has reverted amid much blood to no less than seven self-determined states or virtual states: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia.
We can all add to such a global list.
It is Woodrow Wilson, incidentally, whom history credits with first giving voice, in 1917, to the concept of “self-determination”. To be accurate, it was Fichte who defined the notion a full century earlier. But with the end of the Great War in sight that phrase and the concept had a ring to it, for Europe if not yet for its colonial empires. The “self” intended was implicitly ethnic. Simultaneously, it is interesting to note that Lenin was about to implement his policy of overt recognition of “nationalities” across that vast stretch of Asia comprising the Russian empire he, soon to be succeeded by Stalin, had inherited from the Tsars. Marxist dialectic may have upheld the horizontal solidarity of the world’s proletariat, yet when it came to handling real colonised people the vertical bond of ethnicity was what you faced. Each bit of the Tsarist empire was provided its pastiche ethnic and administrative identity. (When Stalin later came to violate the bond of race with place by deporting en masse such ethnicities as the Crimean Tatars, he was to rue it. The soul, as I would put it, was in torment and the cry went up.)
Wilson’s sound-bite doctrine of self-determination persisted into the United Nations Organisation’s foundational Article 1 in 1945. Stalin was to have the nerve to demand a seat (and a vote) in the General Assembly for fifteen of the USSR’s “autonomous republics”. He didn’t succeed; yet if far from autonomous then, half a century later every one of them was genuinely autonomous. Just about the time you were being born, 1989-91, after three quarters of a century fake ethnic power (and often dreadful collective tyranny) was suddenly turning into to real ethnic power. And today. however many Russians were settled in those ex-Soviet colonial territories at their independence in 1991 (Kazakhs, for instance, were a minority in Kazakhstan), each of those new Asian republics boasts a substantial indigenous majority. Two of them, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, too grieved by the past, have all but thrown their settler Russians out.
Political autonomy, however, is not an ethnic criterion. Let’s linger a moment in Moscow’s Asian sphere and take a random sample. The Yakuts of Siberia, for instance, have no more wish to withdraw from the Russian Federation than the Sindhis from Pakistan. Yet Yakut they insist on remaining, and speaking, with their poetic heritage and their reindeer lore. In the same way Uganda’s twenty-nine recognised ethnicities will defend their languages and legends, groves and springs, if necessary with their blood. Why? For no less a reason than to state their being; count their lives worth living … yet also, let us note, for most to release in themselves a measure of loyalty to the colonially-invented mother state they find themselves embedded in.
As we dart about the globe we see that the realpolitik of modern statehood (like, indeed, those colonially fabricated states of Africa) is real indeed and usually acceded to by the constituent ethnicities. Yet that won’t mean each ethnicity will not yearn secretly and often clamour publicly for the inviolability of its territorial identity and language and, if not power, its archaic forms and symbols. Hence, President Museveni of Uganda, no traditionalist, has seen fit to restore the Kabakaship of Buganda and its institutions, esoteric and exoteric – albeit with negligible power – and similar tribal monarchies besides, invariably to deep popular approval.
We can only say that political power may come to be a facet of ethnic need, and emphatically so where tyranny prevails over a substantial ethnic minority (as in East Timor), or when an imposed symbiosis becomes unmanageable, as in Cyprus. Let us note too, at this point, that federations of indigenous cultural and territorial identities don’t ever prosper or in the end survive when imposed or ordained from above – the releasing colonial hand fancies a tidy map and neat economic linkages. I think of the swiftly defunct West Indies Federation, or Malaysia-Singapore. We’ve already seen what became of post-Rapallo Yugoslavia.
My marrow instinct is that the nearer Europe approaches full federation the more hopeless the project will appear. That same soul is quick to sense betrayal in the dissolution of the mysteriously precious us-ness of linguistic, territorial and historical uniqueness. In the recent votes against the EU’s proferred constitution in France and Holland I see the member nations having sensed a looming “Belgianisation” of the entire European edifice. That was Trotsky’s pejorative term for absence of any meaningful allegiance, the shrivelling of the citizen’s idea of historical and national grandeur to that of the petit-commerciant, the I’m-all-right-Jackery (which Trotsky characterised as Belgian) invading the springs of national uniqueness.
In the end, nationhood as a living ethnos won’t be gainsaid.
In our own time, in countries where history has swept away the monarchies and the panoplies that used to enshrine the mystique of continuity, political authority and ethnic identity become approximately synonymous. One thinks of France or Germany or the USA, each with its formula of slighty uncomfortable and ephemeral kingship. France is into its fifth republic. Maybe they’ve got it right at last; but who knows? By contrast wherever constitutional monarchies have held on, as right here at home, it’s worth noting how effective in the popular heart is the monarchical function of “wholing” a given people’s collective allegiance. Kings and queens are valued for their very distance from the passing show of politics and the swings of parties. Floating above legislative and executive power, a modern monarch’s authority is of another sort. Thus the Spaniards, glancing across at the British, summoned back a monarch.
Here lies a truth of the human condition. By token of that same authority by which kingdoms outlive republics, works of art outlive cultures, justice outlives laws, religions outlive ideologies – including, I wouldn’t be surprised, the ideology of one-adult one-ballot paper as the ultimate solution of governance.
When identity is challenged
People’s readiness to go along with the substitution of true power by symbolic authority is characteristic of what I have called at the start of this talk the protean factor of ethnicity. Regiments will accept the Monarch as Colonel-in-Chief, not the Prime Minister or President whose power the monarch once had. A comparatively protean characteristic of ethnicities “confident in the soul” is the degree to which new blood is accepted – the degree and the speed. In this context I’ve been intrigued to note the swiftness by which readily accepted exemplars of national aspirations, hailed as leaders, are of a provenance quite tangential to the central ethnos: half-Spanish De Valera, independent Ireland’s first president; half-Irish O’Higgins, Chile’s liberator from Spanish rule; the Corsican-born Napulio, half Europe’s emperor in the name of France; the Italian Sephardi D’Israeli, fulfiller of Britain’s imperial mission; the Albanian Mustafa Kemal, the Ata – father – of the modern Turks. Watch just now charismatic Nico Sarkozy, of Hungarian Jewish stock, emerging to champion France’s right to be French.
Such speed of assimilation at the pinnacle is a remarkable reality. In the lumpen mass too sudden and too surging the requirement for communal assimilation and the ethnic confidence buckles: the host community hunches into suspicion and seclusion and the assimilees get their ghetto. Today’s fraught debates across Western Europe, sticky with fudge and half-truth on diversity, asylum-seeking, people-smuggling and economic migration, tell of belated recognition of the essential us in the story of Man under threat.
I daresay the reshaping of the protean us has been going on since Neanderthal man gave way to Aurignacian 40,000 or 30,000 years ago, or Pict to Celt a good deal more recently: a story of the domination by a given ethnicity-cum-culture upon another and/or the allure of a given territory’s economic opening. There ensues willing or enforced assimilation, or else confrontation and sometimes devastation. Sooner or later the weaker element disappears, by mergence, persecution, massacre or flight. Relatively recent history has seen the irreversible colonisation of the Americas and Australasia by immigrants from Europe, and a prevailingly covert despair of the indigenous beyond all those fatal shores. It has seen two or three centuries of trans-Atlantic trade in black Africans as slaves, and a thousand or so years of Arab trade in the enslavement of blacks on the other side of Africa.
Colonial contest among us European powers has often broken in upon the existing ethnic commonalities – soon to become our charges – by facilitating or engineering further vast migrations. I think, for example, of seasonal Chinese migrants to Malaya who got trapped by the Japanese invasion of 1942, and settled; of East Indian labour and their traders brought into East Africa or South Africa, and into the Caribbean and Melanesia; and then settling. The spur of such migratory intrusion was economic – for colonial productivity and commerce. Often it promised the material betterment of the migrant. Ethnic integration was usually negligible between migrants and natives, or one migrant community or another. At the removal of the colonial hand, the pain of the ethnic challenge flared: glance where you will – to Uganda, Guyana, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, besides those I have already cited like Fiji.
The intrusion upon the indigenous in every such instance was too numerous, and the difference too sharp, for assimilation or mutual mergence. This has meant in many newly independent states that national allegiance is flawed or fractured: the meaningful “us” is sectarian. There was to be little of the sophisticated “hybridity” I have heard advocated; intermarriage is seldom risked, and almost always a third tongue, as a rule the former colonial power’s, provides the bridging lingua franca of exhange. Innumerable formulae of symbiosis are essayed: some founder; others pass in and out of manageability (the suffering of the weaker minorities often escaping the world’s attention); yet others endure uneasy compromises. By the record of history, the weaker element in the end will die away or go away. That’s pain. All this evidences, I contend, the centripetal urge as an ineradicable constituent of any given society. It is unrelenting.
Meanwhile on the global scale we are to be aware of the inexorability of the “domination and allure” of the mastering culture, which for better or for worse, in today’s world, is ours. Much of today’s world is mesmerized by us liberal democracies of the North Atlantic, and peripherally Australia and New Zealand. Our handful of Western states exemplify the dominant culture; we are the engine of the supposed global villagehood. The focal regions of attraction for the migrant are thus prevailingly white, culturally sourced by Judaeo-Christian and Hellenic influences, technocratically fired, capital-fuelled and using the English language. The majority of those who migrate today, legally or illegally, come to settle and at length to integrate. They seek to share in our relative stability, equity, and freedom from want. Immigrants arriving in London today have any one of 81 ethnic communities to attach to. But they will have wilfully placed their inherited ethnicity in mortal jeopardy. In the reality, sooner or later, it will be the host community that all will have joined.
Knowing the soul’s needs
Whatever the enthusiasm of the liberal consensus, integration is the inmost urge: e pluribus unum, as the U.S. has long required of its immigrant citizens. It is a social slogan, yes; it is also a spiritual adage reflecting primal interplay between the Manifold and the One.
Lately, as you ought to have noticed, the liberal consensus has been in retreat in the West – in Britain no less than Holland, Germany, France, Scandinavia, Italy and Australia. The fudge political talk about popular concern over the pace and scale of immigration having to do with housing and “facilities” has evaporated. Muslim terrorism in Britain and Spain, following upon 9/11, has meant the gloves coming off fashionable talk. It has opened up discussion of what it comes to mean communally, and to mean to the functioning of government, to forfeit the context of allegiance in the name of tolerance or the “multiculturalism” which up to a couple of years ago was integral to the mantra of political correctness.
I look for something more. We are not to fear to open the discussion at that root level where people seek to shape in secret their deepest allegiances: that commonality the soul works for in protean readiness to greet the other, the stranger, and take him in if not as a flood but an assimilable flow, and let the ethnic shape adjust that little, and rewardingly. Indeed, it is a matter of race and place. Yet the other’s soul-need, I contend, is no less ready, even ardent, to adopt and share the history, custom, usage, and to fund the culture of the adoptive patria: the chthonic imperative of “Who-we-are” and “where-we-belong”, adopted or inherited, working with the soul’s subtlety and speed, and the soul’s wholeness; its righteousness.
This is where I began this lecture. Yeats wrote of that inner requirement for our sense of collective being and our being’s place as “our proper dark”; a privy containment which releases: the abgeschiedenheit of Meister Eckhart; the “history” that is “now and England” … “and nowhere”. I am re-quoting Eliot, from Little Gidding. In the end, none is excluded from that secret rightfulness. The working of ethnicity’s righteous will is constantly reshaping a people to one recognisable self-liberating allegiance in a given place within a single polity and inclusive culture.
Only in awareness of that sanctum of the human spirit governing the hidden process which makes for human allegiance will we be secure from ideological and hence political error and wickedness. We need to know the soul’s need, and in the strictest discipline of language permit that knowledge to regulate political judgment.
We know that there is in the soul that which requires secrecy and which in submitting to explanation risks its truth. True love, true art, and true worship use few words: one word too many dents, or rents, the truth being reached for. Each intimately related vehicle of self-loss speaks for the others, be it the enchantment of music or mate or masterpiece in oils or indeed prayer or passage of scripture or that patria which informs – in-forms – your identity and for which in my generation, at your age, every one of us was ready to die. All these are of the same soul-urge of dissolution or, let us say, oscillation between the self and its loss.
You are never so much yourself as when you lose yourself. And when you love in love and are loved, you love the universe and that hand which made and sustains it. To the us, then, a sanctity.
- Rowan Williams, Resurrection
(London: Darton, Longman &Todd 1982) p.24
- Tom Stacey, Tribe
(London: Stacey International 2003) p. 513
- Martin Buber, I and Thou
(Edinburgh: T & T Clark 1937) p. 54
- Harold R. Isaacs, Ethnicity: Theory and Experience
(Cambridge, Mass: Harvard U.P.1975) p. 35
TOM STACEY is the former Chief Roving Correspondent of the Sunday Times and winner of the Foreign Correspondent of the Year award. He has reported from 115 countries, many of them repeatedly. He is the creator of the 20-volume People’s of the Earth series, published in 14 languages. As a writer of books, he is the author of seven novels, a collection of long short stories and many separately published stories, and three works of travel and exploration, including the fairly recently published TRIBE, The Hidden History of the Mountains of the Moon, currently playing a public role in Ugandan affairs. He is a winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. The publishing house Stacey International, where he jointly presides, lists many works on the world at large.
© Tom Stacey 2007